Robert E. Lee served as West Point's Superintendent. Should the school still display his portrait?
Congress ordered Confederate names and images to be removed from military installations. But what about portraits of Lee before he joined the Confederacy?
Former Army Captain Jimmy Byrn graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. in 2012. He spent late nights studying in the library - underneath a giant portrait of Robert E. Lee in his gray Confederate uniform, a slave tending his horse in the background.
“When I was a cadet, I didn't really think a whole lot of the portrait itself or what it meant, that there was a man dressed in a Confederate uniform hanging up on the wall that was actively trying to break the United States apart,” Byrn said.
But in more recent years, as Byrn thought more about the portrait, he began calling for West Point to remove it. He's also in favor of renaming places on the campus that are named for the general - Lee Barracks, Lee Gate, and Lee Road.
"Robert E. Lee was not just a racist and a slave owner," Byrn said in a research paper co-written with fellow West Point graduate Gabe Royal for the academy's Modern War Institute. "He chose to betray his country in the defense of his right to subjugate the Black race, which now comprises a significant portion of the Army and officer corps."
Still, Byrn is less troubled by another portrait of Lee at West Point. It portrays Lee long before the Civil War, when he was still part of the U.S. Army and was wearing his blue U.S. uniform. Intended to honor Lee's service as West Point's superintendent from 1852 to 1855, the portrait hangs in the dining hall alongside those of every other superintendent of the academy.
Byrn said that one should stay.
“He did have a big mark on the academy that you can't really erase,” Byrn said. “You can't just pretend like Robert E. Lee was not the superintendent. And we need to remember that. But we need to remember it in a way that does not honor the final actions that Robert E. Lee took against this country.”
His point — that Lee should be remembered, but not honored — flows from Lee’s complicated history at the academy and who he was before the Civil War. Congress charged the federal renaming commission with developing a plan to remove or rename any federal property that commemorates the Confederacy.
But it faces a unique question at West Point: Does the young Robert E. Lee, master tactician and former superintendent of the school, deserve to be removed? Or is that Lee somehow different from the bearded, older General Lee, who led the rebel army in a civil war to preserve slavery?
Commission chairwoman and retired Navy Admiral Michelle Howard offered a clue in September about how it might approach Lee’s legacy at West Point.
“Lee is in a long row of photographs and portraiture of other superintendents,” Howard said about the picture of young Superintendent Lee.
“There is nothing about that, that says, ‘This is Lee as a Confederate General.’ It's very clear it's just a historical reckoning of Lee as the superintendent when he was a Major and in the United States Army. We look at that and go, ‘That's probably not within our remit.’”
Howard said the portrait of Lee in his Confederate uniform — the one that watched over Byrn in the library — is different.
“That is clearly a portrait done to commemorate Robert E. Lee as a Confederate General,” she said. “Maybe a better place for that portrait is in a museum, rather than in a federal building.”
But some graduates said dissecting Lee into pre- and post-Civil War characters is a distinction without a difference.
Timothy Berry, a former Army captain who lived in Lee Barracks, was one of just a few dozen Black graduates in the class of 2013. Now, he’s a scholar with the Pat Tillman Foundation and created a non-profit that helps diverse candidates get into the service academies.
“I understand Lee had dual roles, but I think Lee can be remembered through honoring those who made the decision to not betray their country,” Berry said.
“General [Ulysses S.] Grant made a different set of decisions than Lee, but throughout our history has not been given the level of fame as Lee has.”
For Berry, Lee’s ultimate decision to take up arms against his country overshadows any merits he earned prior to the war. Berry pointed out Lee's service as West Point superintendent isn't the first thing that comes to mind when people hear the name “Robert E. Lee.”
“We spend so much time just spinning our wheels about what to do with this person who made a very particular decision that, in my opinion, voided him of any consideration,” Berry said.
The renaming commission has until October of next year to make recommendations to Congress about which items should be removed at West Point and every other Defense Department installation. Then the Pentagon has until 2024 to complete the overhaul.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC. To see more, visit WUNC.org.